July is National Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Mental Health Month and it’s the perfect opportunity to talk about racialized trauma, how it might show up, and using rest to help navigate the current and generational trauma of racism and systemic oppression. As I begin this post, I would like to acknowledge the fact that we exist on Native ground. Our life experiences and cultural norms and habits are interconnectedly woven with the atrocities faced by the native people of this land.  Countless transgressions have occurred for that to be our position today in a country that continues to embrace and empower systems and institutions that force our Native brothers and sisters to remain invisible. Feel free to join me in taking a few seconds for reverence. 

 Honoring BIPOC Mental Health this July is particularly different as most of the country and the world is grappling with the aftermath and continued struggle of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have the shared experience of collectively traversing through the challenges and difficulties of this prolonged crisis; a shared experience that provides a sense of togetherness. While also noticing this shared experience we encountered, I can’t ignore that there were unique struggles that some of us faced during the pandemic that lacks that togetherness quality. BIPOC people were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 as we, also, faced heightened racial tension. Much of what we encountered was not necessarily foreign (which in itself speaks to the breadth of racism and systemic oppression of this country), however, the intensity, frequency, and magnitude of what was happening amidst a pandemic, gave rise to increased stress and trauma within the BIPOC community. 

 If you’ve been able to keep up with the blog posts thus far, you’ve noticed many others have eloquently written about trauma—what it is and how it affects us. As others have mentioned previously, trauma is less about the event. Trauma happens when something happens too fast, too much, and too soon in a way that overwhelms our nervous system. It’s very important to take note that trauma is not a weakness. On the contrary, it is a highly adaptive and effective tool for safety. Our beautiful nervous systems are wired for survival. As I write that, there’s an invitation to smile and take in the beauty of that gift. If it feels right for you, I invite you to take a few seconds and sit with that as well. 

Trauma is stored in our bodies. Because trauma is in our bodies, many BIPOC folks are not only navigating daily racialized trauma, but also the intergenerational trauma that accompanies us as well—genocide, colonization, enslavement, land theft, and displacement. As Resmaa Menakem talks about in his book, “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies,” our traumatized bodies don’t speak the same language of the brain. Therefore, our brains cannot distinguish the difference between what has occurred in the past and what’s to come in the future. Our traumatized bodies only understand the now. Things that have happened and are happening to us show up in our bodies in the present moment. James Baldwin concisely communicates this, although I don’t believe he was intentionally referencing trauma and our bodies, his quote still holds weight here in this conversation.  

History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us.

James Baldwin

 This is exactly why it can be so exhausting, confusing, and infuriating when we bring up the effects of past, race-related, harmful events, and we’re gaslighted and/or minimized because it’s deemed as irrelevant because of perceived time discrepancies.  Our bodies know no difference.   At times this racialized trauma might show up in our bodies as anxiety, feeling stuck, rage, dissociation, indifference, and overdrive. We’ve had to and continue to have to use these mechanisms to survive a place that feels unsafe. 

 I can only speak to the specific experience of being Black and hope that other BIPOC folks can and will take up space to speak on the ways in which racialized trauma shows up for them. For brevity’s sake, let’s focus on how this shows up in Black folks as being in overdrive. Historically speaking, black folks were enslaved and forced to work. Our worth as human beings (actually considered property at the time) was synonymous with how much we worked. Slowing down, resting, choosing to not work, or pacing ourselves could have literally resulted in death. Today, those same patterns present in our bodies (overdrive) as we continue to have to navigate a system that perpetuates similarly harmful patterns (the continued tenets of racism, systemic oppression, and white supremacy). As Black folks, we’ve heard our fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, and uncles declare that we must work twice as hard as others to be on the same playing field. Oftentimes, rest seems out of reach. 

In addition, our society exalts exhaustion. Tricia Hersey gives a very sobering perspective regarding exhaustion in the U.S.

We exist in a culture that supports sleep-deprivation; we have been brainwashed by capitalism to work at a machine-level pace, and to equate our worth with how much we can produce.

Tricia Hersey

We have these mechanisms as adaptations to exist in environments that are not safe. The goal, then, is not to extinguish mechanisms that keep us safe, but to have the ability to sense into and feel moments when these protective mechanisms are not needed. 


REST

/rest/

 relax, take a rest, ease up/off, let up, slow down, pause, have/take a break, unbend, repose, idle, loaf, do nothing, take time off, slack off, unwind, recharge one’s batteries, be at leisure, take it easy, sit back, sit down, stand down, lounge, luxuriate, put one’s feet up, lie down, go to bed, have/take a nap, catnap, doze, have/take a siesta.

– The Nap Ministry @thenapministry

 

Rest is a tool for healing that deepens our resilience. Rest is not something we should try to earn by exhausting ourselves, but it is our birthright. Profoundly put by the Nap Ministry, rest is also a form of resistance.

Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy.

The Nap Ministry

 BIPOC folks, when we rest, we heal. We can reclaim our birthright. Doubt may show up here as you read this and that’s okay. I, myself, am still navigating the fears associated with taking up the space to properly take care of myself in the form of rest. You might need to lean on communal support to process that and begin actively practicing self-love through resting. It might also be beneficial to speak with a healer/therapist to work through how you can begin to tap into the wisdom your body has to offer.

 Walking in the liberation of rest is not wrapped in simple, quick fixes. It will take active engagement in an embodied way. Healing is available for you. In the same way that trauma is held in our bodies, so is healing. I’ll leave with this last quote as it offers a beautiful offering for those who have sacrificed before us.

One of your ancestors’ wildest dreams was being able to rest. Sit down today. Take a nap.

@geecheeexperience from @KeNaiyaa

 

Resource List: 

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem

The Nap Ministry– Here you’ll find the link to a blog, podcasts, articles, playlists, and other resources to support your rest journey.

As Dr. Phillips mentioned in the last post, trauma is considered the experience of something that happens too much, something too soon, or something too fast. Considering the last year of our shared pandemic experience, it seems reasonable to consider that we might all have had something unexpected to navigate. Perhaps we were also already working to navigate other charged circumstances that had happened before. Or maybe during this bigger life event, we had a number of other unexpected life events happen that tested the limits of our coping. Whatever is true for you and your system, you are still here. The beauty of the human nervous system is that it is wired for survival. 

 

Considering that trauma does not reside in the event, but in the body, we can then consider that trauma healing becomes a journey with the body. By inviting movement into our awareness, we can invite the wisdom of the body—the nervous system—into a process of release and recovery, deepening our capacity to navigate uncertainty. The goal of nervous system regulation is to support a space of optimal responding that is congruent with the current environment, meaning that the response may not always be a state of calm. 

 

One way to consider being in a state of overwhelm is to consider that we have lost contact with our internal observer. The internal observer is the element of awareness that supports our system of engagement. By inviting this internal resource back into the conversation of our experience, we can begin to notice our body, or images of ourselves, or our external environment in a different way; perhaps even inviting space for cycles of distress activation to find a place of resolution or completion. 

 

Let’s play with this a little bit.. 

 

Starting where you are, maybe you want to be reclined, seated, or find a place to stand. As we begin to play with some movement, be curious. Notice what might be happening in your sensation experience. Consider if this experience might be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If you find the sensation unpleasant, be curious what happens if you might change your position slightly, slow down or speed up. 

 

If you are reclined, allow your body to softly land against the support that is underneath. Begin to notice the places of contact between your body and what is supporting you. Working from the bottom up, begin to notice the soles of your feet. Notice the curling and stretching of your toes, feel the muscles of your feet. Be curious if your ankles need to move and flex. Allow your attention to travel up your lower legs, knees, and upper legs; flexing and releasing these muscle areas. Notice your hip joints and hips. Begin to notice your lower back, mid back, and upper back. Be curious if you can soften what might be tensing. Notice your abdominal area and soft organs underneath your rib cage. Experience the movement of your breathing. Notice where your breath lands in your body. Allow your attention to travel to your shoulders and chest, perhaps lifting shoulders, up, back, and down. Notice the muscles of your upper arms, elbows, and lower arms; flexing and releasing. Notice your wrists, hands, and fingers. Feel the muscles of your hands. Allow your attention to travel to your neck and jaw. Allow your jaw to move gently side to side. Release the tongue from the roof of your mouth. Soften your eyes and forehead. Allow your head to be supported, and rest. Notice what is different with your sensation, thought, feeling, or image experience. Consider if this is what you need.

 

If you are seated, begin to notice the places your body makes contact with any supports. Perhaps this is the floor or the object in which you are seated. Consider if you need to make any small or large adjustments to allow your body to feel a greater sense of ease. From here, bring awareness to your abdominal area, lift your shoulders up, back, and down. Allow your arms to fall where they may, hands can be resting in your lap, on your thighs or knees. Beginning from the lowest place, scan over your body from feet to crown, and consider what your system needs here. Perhaps this is enough. Perhaps you are noticing a desire to move. As you continue to notice your body being supported, begin to open and close your hands. Notice how your muscles feel as they move in opposite directions. Notice if any other gestures or movements have started or are wanting to happen. Consider allowing those gestures to happen. Once you have given your system what it might need, take an easy, full breath, and then rest. Notice what is different in your sensation, thought, feeling, or image experience. Perhaps this is enough; consider how you will know.   

 

If you are standing, place your feet hip width apart; hip width is the distance of two tight fists between your feet. Leaving a slight bend in your knees, begin to lengthen through your legs, chest, and spine. Bring awareness to your abdominal area, lift your shoulders up, back, and down. Allow your arms to fall to your sides and extend through the crown of your head. Keeping your feet where they are, begin to invite some sway into your knees and arms. Perhaps you continue in this way. Perhaps you bring more swaying motion with your arms, moving in a way that brings your forward hand to your opposite hip and reverse, like a washing machine. Notice if your system is okay here, or if you might want to speed up or slow down. Once you have given your system what it might need, begin to slow your motions until you have returned to a place of stillness. Allow a moment of integration to consider what information you are receiving from your body. Notice what is different in your sensation, thought, feeling, or image experience.  Consider if that can be okay. 

 

Whatever you have chosen for your system today, trust that you have given yourself what you have needed. You are both a witness and protector of your own system.

One year ago, our lives were drastically changed. What we now know as “everyday life” was said to be a two-week process in order to flatten the curve. A year later, we are still living in this very challenging situation. It has tested us in ways we could not imagine. It has tested our mental health, physical health, emotional health, financial health, relational health and our community health. If you are like me, you are exhausted. In our practice we are seeing more and more people seeking counseling and other mental health services to help them deal with this state of overwhelm.

Anniversaries can be moments of celebration but they can also be moments of painful remembrance. As we mark one year we find that we are taxed by what all the past year has brought us. If you feel burned out it is because you should. The pandemic has overwhelmed all of our capacities in different ways. You may find that you are experiencing depression and anxiety in ways you have not experienced in the past and seem stuck and unable to move out of those states. You may be struggling with issues related to food or alcohol and find that you are turning to more dysfunctional means to cope. Again, this is what so many others have been struggling with.

Feeling stuck is often a normal trauma response. Many of us have experienced various levels of “stuckness” over the past year. Trauma can be defined as too much; something that happens too soon, or happens too fast. When something is too much, we are not able to integrate the experience and respond with our normal coping mechanisms. It is more intensity than what the nervous system can handle. Too much fear, too much uncertainty, too much disconnection. It goes beyond what we have the capacity to manage and we don’t have access to enough resources or connection to help us stabilize and regulate. This is exactly what has happened for so many over the past year.

If you have felt stuck or frozen it is completely normal. We have all felt this in various degrees over the past year. We can help to mobilize these feelings and help our nervous system rebound and grow in resilience even in this situation. Take time to notice what you feel. Talk to someone. Move. Reach out for help. Find a therapist. Gentle movements are one of the best ways to try and help our system mobilize out of freeze or “stuckness”.

One constant in life is that we are faced with the unexpected time and time again. At times the unexpected is in the form of a beautiful gift you did not expect, a wonderful gesture from a friend, the chance meeting of someone who will be in your life for a long time. However, we also are deeply aware that the unexpected also brings painful visitors; being let go from a job, the loss of a loved one, a traumatic event, even a pandemic. These life crises happen to all of us. How well we do in navigating when we are faced with the unexpected often comes down to a concept known as resilience.

Resilience is often defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, significant sources of stress, relationship challenges, illness, tragedy, or trauma. Some have defined resilience as our ability to bounce back after these types of traumas. Resilience helps us to come out of this sense of “stuckness”. One of the most encouraging aspects of resilience is that we can actually work on it.

As we are at the year mark of the pandemic, we notice the difficulty of the past year and we also notice the ways we could be moving into change and are seeing hope. If you are noticing that you have been struggling with feeling stuck or frozen then you are like so many who are navigating this time. There are ways to help yourself move out of freeze and into more resilience. We are starting a three-part blog series focusing on just that. One of our therapists, Lisa Hunt will write about how movement can help us deepen our resilience and come into more flexibility in our nervous systems. Then we will have a post by another one of our therapists, Savanna Scott, focusing on how yoga can help children navigate these same issues. Children of course throughout the pandemic are struggling with the same issues as adults and are just as overwhelmed.

Let’s focus on what can help. We have several therapists on staff who specialize in helping navigate trauma and trauma reactions, helping to grow resilience and come out of overwhelm or shut down. Please let us know if we can be of assistance.

In life, there are rarely very many true quick fixes.  But occasionally it is my experience that I come across ideas/truths/concepts that can provide significant value for the vast majority of us at certain points in our lives (think Brené Brown’s material, for example).  One of these popped up for me recently while listening to a podcast a friend had recommended by Melissa Urban where she did an excellent job describing one of these pure gold concepts.  I’m not going to completely spoil it for you here because I strongly believe the whole podcast is worth a listen. To summarize, she talks about a process that was prompted by her therapist that she calls the “self-review.”  It consists of taking a minute to truly look in the mirror and honestly assess ourselves instead of solely allowing other people’s opinions of us to determine or supply the “truth” about us.

This immediately brought to mind a process that I picked up somewhere along the way that I have used with rookie counselors I supervise.  Imposter’s syndrome is real and probably somewhat healthy. But when a new (or experienced) counselor comes to me wondering if they’re any good at this or are they this enough or that enough to be someone’s therapist, my answer almost always comes in the form of a question, “Well, are you?”  In this instance, the reality is that I’m not in the room with them. Though I generally have some level of opinion about their skill or development level, at the end of the day, they have their master’s degree in this and have hopefully been to therapy themselves.  They know what good is.

Often our problem isn’t that we don’t know the answers to questions about ourselves- Am I good at my job? Am I a good therapist? Am I a good parent? Am I attractive? Do I look good in yellow? All the above. The problem is that we (1) haven’t taken the time to ask ourselves and/or (2) haven’t cultivated trustworthy judgment or decided/learned to trust our own judgment.  I know the example might seem trivial but why does anyone else’s judgment have any more weight than mine when it comes to whether or not this outfit or that color looks good on me? I have a mirror. Why do I need someone else to tell me whether or not I’m a good writer? I can read and I know what good writing looks like. Now, I’m not saying other people’s opinions don’t matter at all. For example, sometimes I’m on the fence about my judgment/self review because I’m really just not sure and I trust this person’s judgment. Or I’m aware that I just can’t see this clearly (my example about color is kind of ironic since I’m slightly color blind). People’s input matters. I love what Brené Brown says, though, about feedback: “If you aren’t in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”  The flip side of that, then, is when we have people in our lives who are “in the arena”- who are showing up, are seeking truth, attempting to live whole-heartedly- their feedback is useful and worthwhile. My bigger point here is that, if we are in the arena, this is also true of our own feedback. Keep asking other people for their feedback; just don’t forget to also ask yourself.

I am bigger than this.

This is one of my favorite mantras. Mantras are tricky, of course, because what resonates with one person doesn’t with another. What means one thing to one person means something totally different to another person. I, personally, like this one because I certainly have a proclivity toward over-identifying with some not so useful things in life. For me, this often comes in the form of over-identification with other’s perspective on my loveability and worthiness and on what I do instead of who I am. To be clear, by over-identification I mean allowing this thing to get wrapped into who I am and/or my worthiness of love and belonging versus putting it in its rightful place (as simply someone’s opinion, for example). For others, it’s easy to over-identify with achievements/success, their emotions, or their intellect and thoughts. The reality is we’re all so much bigger than that. By bigger, I don’t mean a sense of prideful self-inflation. What I’m referencing is more like what Marianne Williamson describes in her poem “Our Deepest Fear.” I’ve posted the full poem here because I believe the whole poem is worth a read and perhaps a couple re-reads:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness

That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small

Does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking

So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are born to manifest the glory that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us;

It’s in all of us.

And as we let our own light shine,

We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we’re liberated from our own fear,

Our presence automatically liberates others.

– Marianne Williamson

I believe it was John Bradshaw who defined humility as “knowing your place and taking it.” Unfortunately, it seems we often mistakenly assume humility is a meek, one-down position, essentially playing small. However, I would argue that this is simply the other side of the pride coin, not humility. Bear with me on this one. Being an Enneagram 2 and studying some of that material really helped bring this home for me. To put it succinctly, the downfall of the type 2 is pride. What’s interesting is that the goal of most type 2’s- achieving interpersonal perfection (being all things to all people all the time)- usually results in a vacillation between feelings of self-aggrandizement and feelings of deep inadequacy. The pride, though, isn’t encompassed in either of these but lives instead in the belief underlying the goal itself. The problem here is the idea that it is even possible to be all things to all people. The downfall of perfectionism isn’t the striving; it’s the driving belief that perfection might actually be possible. That, my friends, is pride. At the root, that’s what is really getting us in trouble.

So, let me circle back around to how this connects to the mantra I mentioned at the beginning. Many of us get overwhelmed by whatever is bothering us because it feels bigger than us. It feels like it’s too big for us to handle or like it will never end. Sometimes it simply feels so important in the moment that we lose sight of ourselves. Sometimes, for a time, it can even eclipse us and our feelings of worthiness completely. But this simply isn’t true. I love how author Bonnie McCliss says it, “Getting loud and proud is the way you begin the boomerang process for your energy…Get louder than whatever is haunting you.” I’m bigger than that person’s judgments of me (and they’re bigger than mine while we’re at it!). I’m bigger than that promotion or this job. I’m bigger than this failure or that failure, than this mistake or that mistake, than this fear or that fear, than this imperfection or that imperfection. I’m bigger than this one rejection. I’m bigger than this diagnosis, than this struggle. It doesn’t mean that these things don’t hurt us or even that they don’t matter, per se; the important thing to remember is that I live beyond them. I exist beyond the space that those things can even reach and so do the people around me. When we take this stance, we don’t take things as personally, we take more responsibility for ourselves, and we also loosen the grip of the value we give our own judgments. We live in a place of true humility.

So, next time you find yourself in a shame spiral, give it a shot. Tell yourself that this one thing is not who I am because…

I am bigger than this.

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection…Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

– Brené Brown

This beautiful quote from Brené Brown summarizes the joy and the potential pain of relationships.  The essence of secure attachment is felt when we are seen and truly resonate with another.  For couples, this can be experienced in healthy sexual intimacy.  Yet, sexuality is also an area which can be very problematic for couples.  In even the strongest relationships, their sexual relationship ebbs and flows across time.  I love the word “cultivate” from Brown’s quote above because it implies that connection can be grown within a relationship, with work and attention any aspect of a couple’s relationship can grow and thrive, including their sexual intimacy.

In our previous blog post, we examined the significance of “differentiation” and how an individual can navigate the tension which can exist between the desire to connect to others and also remain as an individual.  This process is at the core of emotional connection.

When we speak specifically about sexual intimacy between two people and what it means to have a healthy sexual relationship, we again look toward the concepts of vulnerability, differentiation, and self-soothing.  For couples, sexual issues often crop up at some point in their relationship.  They are very common yet still difficult to navigate.  We at times find it difficult to discuss issues related to our sexuality.  Perhaps sex was not something that was spoken about in your home, perhaps you grew up in a church or home culture where all the negatives of sex were talked about but none of the positives, leading to the development of shame around sexual issues.  It might be that you have sexual trauma in your past.  Whatever the reason, issues related to sex can be challenging to openly talk about.  It requires vulnerability and honesty.  It requires the ability for a person to be able to hold onto themselves in the presence of another and appreciate the ability of their partner to do the same.  When couples are able to do this, they are able to not only have a fulfilling and healthy sexual relationship but also able to navigate their relationship when they may be experiencing sexual difficulties.

Defining sexual health can be tricky as what impacts our sexual development and our sense of self is vast.  I appreciate the World Health Organization’s definition stating, “Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” (WHO, 2006a)

This definition includes the many aspects of our sexuality as well as the nature of sexual health.  The concept of sexual health is deeply ingrained with an individual’s ability to hold onto themselves in the presence of another.  To set appropriate boundaries yet enter into a space where they are able to let go and be with the other.  Of course, as many couple’s therapists and those who have written extensively on the subject will tell you, sexuality is but one part of overall couple intimacy.  In a recent discussion in the marital therapy course I teach, we discussed the many different aspects of intimacy such as emotional connection, conflict resolution, companionship and recreation, communication, intellectual intimacy, spiritual connection, and of course the couple’s sexual relationship.  All are significant aspects to creating intimacy in a relationship and are intricately connected to one another.  None of these exist in a vacuum.  This is definitely true of a couple’s sexual relationship.  Healthy sexuality exists within the totality of the couple’s overall intimacy in their relationship yet, it is also not guaranteed even when the couple is connected deeply to one another.  Ester Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist and author who specializes in couples work and has researched and written on the concepts of erotic intelligence, sex, and relationships, has an excellent TedTalk discussing the complexity of keeping passion alive in a loving, committed relationship.  The video, “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship” can be found here.

In the video, Perel talks specifically about the paradoxes which exist in long-term relationships which often make healthy sexuality difficult for couples.  She discussed our innate need for both security and adventure, and connection and autonomy.  These paradoxes naturally create tension for couples.  Can we be deeply committed to the other while we remain deeply committed to our own sense of self, feelings, dreams, and goals? Can we learn to connect deeply through vulnerability and authenticity while also remaining independent and able to stand on our own two feet and self-soothe? Can we build a loving, stable, and dependable relationship while still experiencing the adventure and mystery in life? These questions are at the core and the couples who are able to navigate the tension inherent in these opposing desires are the couples who are able to navigate the issues facing them sexually.  They know the ebb and flow of sexual connection and are able to continually come back to one another with both a deeply connected but also a deeply passionate sexuality.

Individuals who are able to navigate these innate paradoxes in long-term relationships are able to keep passion alive in their sex lives.  All of this is dependent on a loving secure attachment bond as well as each individual’s ability to hold onto themselves within the relationship.  This brings us back to the concept of “differentiation”.  On her website, Perel states, “I want to speak to those of you who view commitment as a loss of self.  The idea that we lose ourselves in the presence of our partner is deeply ingrained in the modern perception of love, particularly in the United States. As almost all of our communal institutions give way to a heightened sense of individualism, we look more frequently to our partner to provide the emotional and physical resources that a village or community used to provide.  Is it any wonder that, tied up in relying on a partner for compassion, reassurance, sexual excitement, financial partnership, etc. that we end up looking to them for identity or, even worse, for self-worth?”  This quote is at the heart of remaining connected to ourselves within a relationship.  When we hold onto ourselves we are able to embrace another with more depth, quality, and availability.  We are able to allow them to offer the same.  It creates a beautiful space for each individual to grow as well as space for the relationship to thrive and grow, including the couple’s sexual relationship.

Dr. David Schnarch discusses how couples can navigate the difficult waters of sexual intimacy, individuality and connection, using the Four Points of Balance.  Schnarch talks about two primary drives within us; the drive for autonomy and the drive for attachment.  We desire both and we seek out both.  Differentiation allows us to handle the balance between the two and to enter into relationships while still being able to hold onto ourselves.  This is a key factor in the development of healthy sexuality.  Explained here are what Schnarch refers to as the Four Points of Balance:

1.  Solid Flexible Self- having a deep connection to who you are and your values and not requiring others to validate you
2.  Quiet mind, Calm Heart- maintaining a healthy inner world, being able to emotionally regulate and self-soothe and understanding and listening to how your body is reacting
3.  Grounded Responding- learning how to appropriately respond to others, not over-reacting or under-reacting
4.  Meaningful Endurance- willingness to stick with the difficult, being willing to do what you do not want to and learning to deal with stress

For more information, click here.

When it comes down to it, the health of a couple’s sexual relationship is similar to other aspects of their relationship which requires attention, communication, openness, vulnerability, honesty, and a willingness to grow all which can be cultivated.  It involves a commitment to each individual in the relationship as well as the relationship between them, ensuring a safe place for intimacy to develop within the relationship.  Yes, there will be challenges but there is also the opportunity for deep connection and a place where a relationship can grow and thrive.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Schnarch, D. M. (1997). Passionate marriage: Love, sex, and intimacy in emotionally committed relationships. WW Norton & Company.

Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. New York, NY: Harper.

Vulnerability is the essence of connection and connection is the essence of existence.

– Leo Christopher

Life is truly about connection in relationship.  We long to connect and feel seen by others.  This starts early in life with our first attachments.  We are social beings and we need one another.  Yet, it will not be a news flash to anyone reading this to state that relationships are difficult.  In all forms: from romantic relationships, work relationships, parenting relationships, to friendships, they all come with a certain level of challenge.  How we navigate these challenges in relationships has much to do not only with the quality of those relationships but also the quality of our life in general.

Why are relationships such a challenge? It starts possibly with the fact that to enter into a deep connection with another, we first have to be in that same type of relationship with ourselves.  Intimacy with another requires the ability to know and maintain who we are as we enter into that relationship with another.  One reason this is central in healthy, deeply connected relationships is its relationship with vulnerability.  Connection requires vulnerability.  Our ability to be vulnerable depends on our ability to handle the anxiety related to vulnerability.

Family therapy researcher, Murray Bowen, called this ability “differentiation”.  Differentiation is essentially our ability to remain connected to ourselves in the presence of others.  It is the ability to have a developed solid self which allows an individual to navigate the difficult emotions present in relationships.  It allows an individual to act and think for themselves while being able to connect and interact with others.

“A person with a well-differentiated ‘self’ recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear-headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can support others’ views without being a disciple or reject others’ views without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.” (https://thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts/).

This idea of differentiation interlocks with our ability to be intimate in relationships.  Brene Brown has written extensively on the concept of vulnerability and its correlation to belonging and connection in relationship.  In her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, she states, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.  True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” This is a difficult prospect and it demands action on our part.  When we are able to do this, we can hold onto ourselves and allow others to do the same.  We can tolerate the unique thoughts, feelings, and needs of others because we can tolerate those within ourselves.

How do we accomplish this? How do we find a way to be able to stand in our authentic self and bring that self to others in relationship?

This process starts and ends with us.  One key to the differentiation process is being able to own our stories.  If we are cut off and disconnected from parts of ourselves and our own stories it is difficult to connect to the same in others.  To be authentic, we have to first know ourselves.  For generations, stories are the fabric of our lives.  From movies, to books, to family history, stories help us heal, encourage us, and help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us.  When I was in graduate school, one of our tasks was to write our family story.  This required sitting down and interviewing family members and letting them tell their part of our family story.  I still have pages of written parts of these stories from family members, some who are no longer alive.  I treasure these pages.  While a challenge, the assignment was invaluable to my understanding of my own personal story.  Often we struggle with our own stories because they are frequently filled with pain, trauma, loss, and unfulfilled dreams.  Yet, all of what happens to us shapes us.  Dr. Dan Siegel calls this process, narrative integration.  It is the process of making sense of our stories and our inner world.  It is central in the attachment process with others.  Brene Brown stated that, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” (Brown, 2010, p. 6).

A second key to differentiation is our ability to self-soothe or emotionally regulate.  Being in relationship with another is difficult but also deeply rewarding.  Navigating this process requires us to be able to manage our internal emotional world.  This is the process of emotional regulation.  Emotions can be challenging to navigate, particularly emotions such as anxiety, anger, fear, and frustration.  The process of regulation simply means that we are able to name these emotions and manage them instead of acting out of them.  We all know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by our emotions and the impact on relationships when we act out of our emotions, doing and saying things that we regret.  The process of regulation, or self-soothing, allows us to ride our emotional waves without being lost in them.  We are able to make healthy decisions about how to manage our emotions until they settle and we can re-engage in whatever needs our attention.  These are habits that require time and attention to develop because when we feel deeply, it is often difficult to think.  Practice these when you are not in crisis or emotionally overwhelmed.  The more differentiated we are from those around us, the easier it is to hold onto yourself when all of the feelings come and to self-soothe.

Tips for self-soothing:

1.  Going on a walk
2.  Talking to a trusted friend
3.  Listening to music/playing music
4.  Writing in a journal
5.  Mindfulness practices
6.  Therapy
7.  Yoga
8.  Artistic pursuits
9.  Taking a bath
10. Spending time with a pet

Each of these are simple activities that we can engage in to help us soothe when we are feeling overwhelmed emotionally.  When we learn this process, we learn to navigate the tricky waters of our emotional world and we are able to enter into relationships from a more solid foundation.   When we learn to hold onto ourselves we are able to hold onto others.

In our next blog post, we will focus on how differentiation applies to couples and healthy sexuality.

 

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing.

What if we once and for all decided that we were strong enough for the pain in our lives?

Glennon Doyle-Melton

In this Super Soul Session bestselling author and Momastery founder Glennon Doyle-Melton unashamedly tells her story of learning to be still in the face of pain and “hot loneliness”.  Glennon shares how she used bulimia and addiction to run away from her body and her emotions. In her words, she “voted her body off the island of herself” and disconnected the trinity of body, mind, and spirit. After many years of living in this fragmented way, she made a decision to stop running and start listening to what the pain was trying to teach her. What she learned is that pain and challenge, the very things we so stubbornly try to push away is what ultimately grow and connect us.

Glennon’s vulnerable story completely altered the way in which I view my own pain and conflict. It forced me to recognize the various ways in which I was trying to push that easy button and disconnect (guilty of mindless Instagram scrolling). I am reminded time and time again that we have the strength for our pain. In allowing ourselves to feel even when it hurts we are becoming stronger and more resilient. Glennon says,“Pain is not a hot potato, it is a traveling professor and it knocks on everyone’s door. The wisest ones say, ‘Come in, and sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.’”

This is one piece of insight that can be a bit tough to swallow for some of us at first, especially those of us who over-identify with our thoughts (a topic for another time) and/or overestimate the objectivity of our perspective. How many times have you been sure you judged a situation correctly and later hear more of the story from someone else’s perspective and realize you’d actually gotten at least part of it wrong? Maybe, instead, I should ask how many times that’s happened this week. Misinterpretation is normal and it’s going to happen. A healthy perspective, though, on how this process works can help us avoid a lot of mistakes in relationships.

First, let’s start with the science. In his book Trauma and Memory, Dr. Peter Levine (2015) describes the subjective nature of the way our brain works by pointing out:

”We must live with the uncomfortable acceptance that memory is simply not something concrete, definitive, and reproducible, like a video recording that can be retrieved at will. It is instead more ephemeral, ever-shifting in shape and meaning. Memory is not a discrete phenomenon, a fixed construction, cemented permanently onto a stone foundation. Rather, it is more like a fragile house of cards, perched precariously upon the shifting sands of time, at the mercy of interpretation and confabulation” (p. 2)

Most of us who sat through Psych 101 heard the example of how two people that witness a car accident will swear by completely different details about what happened, even down to the color of the cars involved. We know this, especially when we’re pointing it out in someone else, but it’s definitely harder to apply to ourselves and our judgment. The reality is that we often act as if our perspectives are factual and objective, despite even scientific evidence to the contrary. This works great for attorneys, not so much for loving relationships.

Many of us have heard the recommendation to use “I” statements during difficult conversations (for example, saying “I felt hurt by…” instead of “You made me mad by…”). This is a great strategy. Another great way to help de-escalate a sensitive conversation is to go a step further and instead of presenting what we heard or interpreted as fact (which, as I’ve pointed out here isn’t true anyway) present it as what it is- an interpretation. One of my favorite recommendations for dealing with conflict in couples counseling is to ask each individual to start each interpretation statement (many of them are in an argument) with “What I make up in my head about what you just said/what just happened is…” It’s always a little clumsy at first but this works. In my best moments, I either say this in my head or out loud when I find myself in a situation where I’m interpreting said situation and want to be careful not to present it as if I believe it’s fact. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t my way of saying that I don’t think my opinion matters. It’s simply an acknowledgment that the way my brain works is to take in what’s happening or being said, interpret it through my many lenses of personal experience, bias, etc (for better or for worse), and then come up with a finished product that can’t possibly be anything but subjective. It is what it is. I’m a human being; I’m just built that way. It’s not a flaw that I need to get better at avoiding. It’s a fact.

So what’s the solution? The solution is to have a healthy relationship with my thoughts and opinions and to never stop asking questions. What do I mean by a healthy relationship with my thoughts and opinions? I mean knowing and believing what I said at the end of the last paragraph. I need to be aware and at peace with the fact that I’m not meant to/can’t possibly be objective and I’m a better partner/friend/daughter/coworker for acknowledging that. Do you know anyone who always presents their thoughts/opinions/perspectives as factual and won’t listen to anyone else’s input? We all hate that, right? Then we should probably stop doing it ourselves. Solutions don’t get much simpler than that. The way we say things really matters. Language not only communicates how we think and feel; the reverse is also true. The words we choose to use can also change how we think and feel. That’s why practicing things like beginning our sentences with “What I’m making up in my head about that is…” matters.

The second recommendation I want to make is to never stop asking questions. That’s when communication dies. It’s when we stop coming up with questions and looking for answers. Don’t take my word for it. Next time you hear two people escalating into a verbal conflict, test my theory. It goes wrong at some point because they stop listening to each other and stop trying to understand what the other person is saying. At that point, we are no longer communicating and we might as well cut our losses and come back to that topic later. When we are no longer curious about and truly trying to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings on whatever we’re talking about, we’re no longer having a conversation. We’re only talking at each other. We’re also no longer connecting.  At that point, I recommend you take a break until you are calm enough and grounded enough to find that empathy, desire for connection, and curiosity that are at the foundation of good relationships.

As I was researching some of my favorite books for thoughts on this topic, I found far too many to fit into one article. So I thought I would leave you with a few of my favorites here at the end. I’m a big fan of writing quotes that I find really impactful on an index card in a spot where I can occasionally read them back over. Remember, words matter and we soak up language like sponges. It never hurts to be intentional about soaking up the good stuff.

 

From Dr. Brené Brown’s Rising Strong:

“The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain. The minute we find ourselves face down on the arena floor, our minds go to work trying to make sense of what’s happening. This story is driven by emotion and the immediate need to self-protect, which means it’s most likely not accurate, well thought out, or even civil. In fact, if your very first story is any of these things, either you’re an outlier or you’re not being fully honest.” (p. 78)

“When unconscious storytelling becomes our default, we often keep tripping over the same issue, staying down when we fall, and having different versions of the same problem in our relationships- we’ve got the story on repeat. Burton explains that our brains like predictable storytelling. He writes, ‘In effect, well-oiled patterns of observation encourage our brains to compose a story that we expect to hear.’”

 

From The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz:

“Your opinion is nothing but your point of view. It is not necessarily true. Your opinion comes from your beliefs, your own ego, and your own dream.” (p. 47)

“We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking- we take it personally- then we blame them and react by sending emotional poison with our word. That is why whenever we make assumptions, we’re asking for problems. We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing.” (p. 69)

“We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.” (p. 74)

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.

Levine, Peter A. Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.

“Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.”

Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion

In the last article in this series, I focused on negative self-talk. Initially, that piece was meant to cover self-talk as a whole. However, as I wrote, it became clear that this topic couldn’t be given justice without separating it into two parts. I started with the negative side of the coin because, unfortunately, I think many of us are more familiar with it than the positive side. What I certainly do not want to suggest, though, is that it’s only the negativity of our self-talk that makes it so compelling. Our positive self-talk can be equally transformative and, quite frankly, a lot simpler.

Much like the inner critic, positive self-talk as a concept also garners a lot of attention in a variety of forms via many different perspectives and traditions: modern psychology, meditation, mantras, affirmations, etc. The most recent mainstream perspective that aims at shining a light on the significance of our internal world is positive psychology. In his highly entertaining 2011 TED Talk, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, states, ”We’re finding it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” He posits that, as the adage says, we should work smarter not harder. We’re better off spending our energy remaining positive in the present moment than striving for the next thing that will make us happy or successful (which probably won’t work). In his work with businesses, Achor (2011) reports, “What we found is that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.” Near the end of his talk, he gets more practical:

“We’ve found there are ways that you can train your brain to be able to become more positive. In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully. We’ve done these things in research now in every company that I’ve worked with, getting them to write down three new things that they’re grateful for for 21 days in a row, three new things each day. And at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first” (Achor, 2011).

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Nope. Sorry, I just can’t believe it could be that easy. Something that affects so much of us so deeply can’t shift significantly with an intervention so simple.” I hear you, and I, by no means, want to oversimplify a profound topic like self-talk. As I mentioned in the last article, many different factors play into our self-talk, many of which are the stuff of therapy. However, I do believe, again, that the jumping off point can be as simple as a small consistent habit, such as practicing gratitude. This concept, though, applies across the board well beyond the scope of gratitude specifically. As Achor mentioned, a daily practice of noticing and acknowledging something shifts how we operate on a subconscious plane. We can change our thinking on a fundamental level in whatever category by sheer force of focus. That focus is changing our internal world over time in a way that can bring more lasting change than any amount of in-the-moment conscious white-knuckling.

One of the biggest real-life examples of this for me came from an experience during my college years. One day, a friend of mine invited me to a weekly small group she had been attending for a while. She explained that they weren’t studying anything and the group didn’t have a specific agenda. They simply spent their time together talking about the ways they had seen God show up in their lives over the past week. Looking back, I’m sure I went to this group to prove that nothing good can come from warm-and-fuzzy share time without some intellectual bounty involved. What I found, though, surprised me. Never at any other time in my life have I been more aware of daily divine intervention in my life than when I was attending this group. Do I believe now that God was moving more at that point in my life than others? No, not at all. What was different was merely the fact that I was looking for it and paying attention. So I found it.

For those of us who need, perhaps, a more research-based example of this, keep reading. This topic also significantly shifted in my journey while working at a residential addiction treatment center soon after finishing my counseling degree. It was a small facility, and I was the rookie therapist, so one afternoon I  found myself scrubbing some graffiti off one of the bathroom walls next to my office. Apparently, I was using my outside voice while saying “I love my job” over and over to myself (sarcastically, in case you missed that). At this point, one of my supervisors walked past and said: “Hey, you know that actually works, right?” After he took a second to take in my blank and probably more-than-slightly exacerbated facial expression, he proceeded to tell me about an article he had read about a common practice of Navy SEALs. I found after some fact-checking that Navy SEALs have used positive self-talk as a part of their training curriculum for years, which has resulted in significantly higher passing rates in their training program. Eric Barker, in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, claims that we should pay close attention to what Navy research has shown us about the impact of self-talk:

“A Navy study revealed a number of things that people with grit do—often unknowingly—that keep them going when things get hard. One of them comes up in the psychological research again and again: ‘positive self-talk.’ Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself. Those words can be positive or negative. It turns out that when these words are positive, they have a huge effect on your mental toughness, your ability to keep going. Subsequent studies of military personnel back this up. When the Navy started teaching BUD/S applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.”

So, let’s sum up some of the practical pieces of positive self-talk. As I mentioned above, there are elements of our internal world that create barriers to the simplicity of what I presented here about changing our self-talk. This is where a wise, trusted friend or counselor can help you navigate what gets in the way of harnessing the power of the positive potential of your mind. As discussed in the last article in this series, when trying to help a counseling client understand what our self-talk should look like I try a few different avenues by asking questions that challenge the internal beliefs that function as the cogs of the internal self-talk machine. If you force one gear (the negative) to stop turning and instead focus your efforts on movement of the positive gears, your mind machine will automatically begin moving in the direction of wellness. Even our simplest intentional daily actions change our brains. It really is that simple. Try it out and see for yourself.

 

Achor, S. (2011, May). TEDx Bloomington. The happy secret to better work. Video retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work

Barker, E. (2017). Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins.